Since an awful lot of people voted for it, this comes first.
1) Watch out for language.
It might seem a pedestrian thing to keep track of—and who wants to be pedestrian when you have drama to get to?—but your language may well reveal where the story is veering off-track into melodrama. Specifically, authors who feel the story is slipping sometimes try to pep up dialogue and narration with punctuation, words, and phrases that get attention. What winds up happening is that the reader wakes up enough to laugh her ass off.
First, exclamation points. Read the following, please:
“The traitors are gaining on us!” Harulf gasped as he stumbled over the broken remains of the door, and grabbed onto his ribs. One would be poking deep into a lung; he just knew it! “Soon they’ll have us surrounded! There’s no way to get out of the far side of the castle!”
“Yes, there is!” shouted Dreselda, a fiery gleam in her eyes. “I found a way around once when I was exploring. It hasn’t been so long since I was a child that I forgot! Follow me!” She stared at Harulf. “Or are you giving up on me?!?”
I would think, if by this point the author has built Harulf and Dreselda up as characters, and set the traitors who follow them up as villains, and wounded Harulf, and shown that they might die, there isn’t a need to toss in exclamation points at the end of every sentence. Nor is there any need for that abomination known as ?!?. Tell me, since dialogue is supposed to be what the characters hear from each other, how are they going to know the difference between a shout that ends with ? and one that ends with ?!? ? For that matter, what’s the difference between ?! and ?!? ? Answer: No one knows. Authors just think it looks cool.
This carries your drama straight into melodrama. Avoid it. If you find yourself ending every sentence with an exclamation point, chop away at them. Unlike commas, periods, and even question marks, these little buggers are highly noticeable, and the sensation they carry of SHOUTING in someone’s mind isn’t unlike the effect capital letters have over the Internet. Where they go in abundance, snickers and eye-rolling can’t be far behind.
Likewise, the clichés can start feasting on the narrative at any point, but they come like jackals after lions when the author thinks her story’s dying. Everything is bigger, faster, stronger, brighter—and, as a result, cheap and tawdry as a B-movie. Suddenly every character can’t just smile; he or she has to “grin blindingly.” Villains “cackle wickedly.” Every character in sight “exclaims” or “cries” things instead of saying them. People start shouting things like “You’ll never get away with it!”
Watch it, or you’ll hurt yourself, and your readers. Their eye-rolling muscles will never be the same. If you feel the need to scatter words and phrases like this through the narrative, cut them out. Most likely, your story’s just hit a rough patch. Trying to use exclamation points and trite words to “spice it up” is like trying to use a scalpel to give someone a haircut.
2) Understatement of emotions in times of suspense is still effective.
Perhaps characters grip each other’s hands before they step through the arch to meet the evil guy. Perhaps the character who’s going to pass through a portal into an unknown country takes a deep breath and hitches his shoulders. Perhaps someone’s mind clears out just before armies meet, and he realizes what it’s truly going to mean to kill another human being.
There don’t have to be glittering tears, “a storm of emotions,” or sobbing confessions of love to heighten moments like these. In fact, such things will, again, cheapen your story. This works in two ways, and sometimes someone is really special and manages to get them both in there:
- If there’s building suspense, it snaps the suspense by being loud and blaring instead of quiet and heart-thumping.
- It makes it seem as if the characters have whatever emotion’s convenient for the plot. How many of those sobbing confessions of love are the first ones that the heroes or heroines have made? Lots of ‘em. The device of confronting a character with danger and only then inspiring her to confess feelings she’s known all along may work, if she’s also been good at lying to herself or the other person. It’s far more likely to come off as manipulative.
Consider going for quietude when you’re going to follow it with noise, whether literal or figurative. That provides a tight focus for the characters’ emotions, an intimacy that doesn’t come with “racking sobs as they held each other,” and a rise (or fall) from the quiet moment into the noisy one. I happen to believe it’s also effective for tension. I’ve read some authors who could creditably do two characters having an emotional conversation while racing flat out on horseback to Save the World, but not very many.
3) “I’m your reader, not your therapist, and I don’t know you yet.”
Some authors want their readers to empathize with the hero, heroine, or multiple protagonists from the start of the story. It’s a decent ambition.
What isn’t decent is the way they go about it. This is a long, angsty monologue, sometimes interior, sometimes made to a sympathetic companion, that details all the troubles of the character’s current existence. “Well, my name is Karin, and six months ago my mother died, and five months ago my pet elephant passed away, and four months ago I cut my hand on a piece of glass, and three months ago a wandering bard told me I couldn’t sing, and two months ago my father started making me do chores, and one month ago my little brother ran away, and two days ago I lost my basket…”
Ow. Bad, bad choice. I can’t possibly cover all the reasons why here, but I’ll cover the ones that are relevant to the current rant:
First, a little suffering goes a long way when your audience is meeting your heroine for the first time. Show something bad that’s happened to the character, shows its consequences, and show her dealing with those consequences, and the readers should be bang on her side. Reeling off a list touches the melodramatic line, because of course one really bad thing happening isn’t enough; it must be sixteen really bad things! Cheap, once again, going for quantity over quality.
Second, some authors have a wooden ear when it comes to choosing what’s major suffering and what’s not. When the death of a family member is coupled with losing a basket, I immediately start snickering. Oh, how sad and tragic! Not only does the last event seem gratuitous, it makes the first event(s) seem so. If this is a character who can grieve equally about both occurrences, I start casting a jaundiced eye on how much she really misses her mother.
Third, this gives you no time whatsoever to say, “I’m sorry” or see how the character reacts before it moves on. (This is a problem with a lot of melodrama. See point 4). What’s important isn’t the way the character pulls herself back up—or fails to pull herself back up—but getting on to the next event to pound “You will love her BANG because I say so BANG” into your skull.
And, finally, authors also tend to have a wooden ear for how this sounds to someone who doesn’t already know and love the character. They may think she sounds noble and suffering. To an awful lot of people, she sounds wailing, whiny, or in those cases by authors who are really special, both at once. It takes skill to keep a monologue from veering into whine territory. Most authors who start their stories off this way don’t have it.
To keep bad events in the character’s life dramatic, show them (don’t tell them), show their consequences, and show the character reacting to them as that character would. Don’t expect to win the reader’s sympathy with a simple recital. I’m more interested in seeing what the character’s like in the face of her difficulties. Narcissistic? High-strung? Wry? Determined? Depressed? (If she’s whiny, I tend to put the story down and go away, but I’d like to see more whining that the author meant to come off that way, instead of this melodramatic wailing).
4) True drama needs time to unfold. Melodrama is breathless.
When I see a character approach a high point, I want to know that there’s been enough pages behind me to build that up (novel) or enough implied history for me to know why it’s important (short story). I don’t enjoy the feeling of being rushed from event to event, told that, yes, each one is important and life-changing and the greatest thing the character has ever experienced, and then being rushed away again somewhere else to watch something else and being told the exact same thing about it.
There’s a concrete reason why this doesn’t work: too many wondrous events all at once tend to numb us, whether in our lives or as readers. Hell, one wondrous event can numb someone. How do you deal with a character who’s just witnessed the death of all her race except for her? How do you deal with someone just snatched into slavery? How do you deal with someone who’s just hatched the right egg in the right amount of seawater and as a result sees dragons returning to the world for the first time in a thousand years? Those events need all the attention that their writers can give them, to play out the consequences and explore what happens afterwards.
Does this mean I think there should be only one great event per book? Certainly not. But I think it’s very hard to create more than one sense of drama per book, without assigning them to separate characters. The character dealing with having become a slave is not going to react in the usual way if he sees dragons for the first time right after that. Nor, I think, would the grief of seeing all his race die and then being taken captive separate in his mind. They’re more likely to fall on him as one trauma. Insisting that he then care as much about finding the magic sword as the character who’s questing specifically to find it is silly.
Snatched along from event to event, a fantasy hero has the right to become shocked, numb, fixated on one happening instead of many, or simply jaded. It’s the absolute wrong way to give your readers a sense of the importance of any event by itself. They’ll tend to blur together in the reader’s mind, and if you separate out the protagonist’s reactions too much, without giving him sufficient downtime in between, it’ll seem as though you’re manipulating his emotions for the sake of the plot again.
What’s the breathless pace appropriate for? A comedic fantasy, or one where the prime concern is action. Both can work with drama, but if the pace absolutely must be breakneck, they’re likely to eat it instead.
5) Melodrama forgoes nuances.
There’s rarely anything complicated about a melodramatic scene. The villain ties the heroine to the train tracks. The hero has to rescue her. Flat, simple, easy to process and react to. The hero confronts the villain and screams at him about killing his parents just before he stabs him. You know that you’re supposed to root for the hero, hate the villain, and cheer when he dies. There couldn’t be anything easier.
Drama shouldn’t be easy. To return to the examples I used above, what’s easy about watching your race die, undergoing slavery, or realizing that you’ve brought dragons back? Nothing, that’s what. And though the character may feel one overwhelming emotion on top, there can, and should be, others below.
Rage, shock, fear, numbness, terrible surprise, disgust, revulsion, a desire to die, and sorrow could all be responses in the first few situations, existing in various combinations. For the last, I would expect joy, wonder, excitement, tears, surprise, contentment, and perhaps a bit of hollowness, now that the quest is finally achieved, at various stages. Depending on the character, there could be other emotions.
The best dramatic scenes will also cause complicated reactions in the readers themselves. Melodramatic ones are likely to sweep up the author and the characters, while leaving the audience standing on the ground and blinking.
6) Emotional situations that strain the suspension of disbelief are likely to turn melodramatic.
The hero having three women in love with him all at once, all the women liking each other and being comfortable with it, and the hero being equally in love with all three of the women, is a situation like this. Each factor I mentioned strains the chain. If the reader can accept that, every other woman in the series falling in love with the hero will strain the chain further, until the disbelief simply falls like a grand piano in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Things don’t work like that.
Yes, in fantasies you have magic and many things that don’t work as they do in our normal world. Nor does character psychology have to be the same. But I’m inclined to think you can get away with a lot more in the way of magic and setting than you can with character psychology. The man can be the greatest hero in the world and half-insane from his magic, and yet readers could still be interested in him, because those are abilities. (As long as the abilities themselves don’t start breaking the world’s rules, that is). But the perfect threesome love relationships, the complete lack of jealousy from the women involved, and his attraction for every other woman just doesn’t compute; while we might know a few people who react like that, every new one added on squares the problem. Things become silly.
This is where authors go soaring over the top. They’re desperate to justify characters’ emotional reactions, because they really want those emotional reactions. They pile on clichés and perfect characters and explanations they never offered before to keep the emotional reactions going. And then…hello, melodrama.
Authors? If you can’t build emotional reactions believably out of what came before in the plot and the characters’ history, just accept that you can’t get those reactions and move on. Not every character can do everything. Fantasy would be a better place if more people learned that.
(And if you recognize the situation I was talking about above, I am so, so sorry, and offer you a grimace of shared pain).
Whee. Fun. Melodrama is one of my pet hates.